Salty dog ‘made major contributions to science’
Unchained Man: The Arctic Life and Times of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett By Maura Hanrahan Boulder Publications $21.95 350 pages
“Explorers are not wellbalanced … Really competent people would not undergo the trials of exploration.
You have to be a bit daffy to do that.”
This quote from Isaiah Bowman, president of the American Geographical Society, opens the pages and sets the tone of Maura Hanrahan’s compact biography.
There have been several books written about Captain Bob Bartlett [1875, Brigus-1946 New York City], with more than one focusing on the Karluk (which came to such grief in 1914), as well as by him, via his published logs. He’s appeared as a character in Michael Winter’s novel “The Big Why.”
We even have motion picture footage of Bartlett, courtesy of Varrick Frissell’s “Viking.”
Hanrahan researched archives in three countries for “Unchained Man,” her twelfth book and the latest assessment of Bartlett’s character, career, and legacy.
“Some might dismiss Bartlett as another of Newfoundland’s old salty dog types, only more famous,” she writes.
“But Bartlett made major contributions to science, expanding the collections of numerous museums and universities, advancing the understanding of the Arctic environment, and mentoring noted scientists … he had a central place on the world stage and hobnobbed with
aristocrats and presidents.”
In Hanrahan’s characterization, “He had a rich inner life but was lonely, not as a result of circumstances but because that was his nature.
He was smart, pragmatic, brave, and stoic.
He was also insecure, isolated, given to petulance, and deeply spiritual.”
Hanrahan has largely marshalled her material around Bartlett’s great exploits — “Inside the Quest for the North Pole”; “The Karluk and Siberia in 1914” — and packed it with breadth and detail.
Provisions on Robert Peary’s expedition, for example, included 50 pounds of biscuits and tea, while they “eschewed sleeping bags, dozing, instead, on their snowshoes covered by a piece of animal skin.”
It’s also contextualized, acknowledging and decoding “explorer’s culture.”
Most explorers were white, male, and European, though Peary was born in Pennsylvania and African-american Matthew Henson is a noted and celebrated exception. Their discoveries often came on well-travelled Indigenous ground; they often became international celebrities whose “dominant Arctic exploration accounts become myths and also spectacles” while vital, accompanying figures like Inuit (or Sherpa) guides become occluded or completely overlooked.
Hanrahan cast Bartlett’s own interactions with Indigenous peoples in relatively progressive light, but doesn’t claim Bartlett was somehow anachronistically enlightened. It was simply how he treated people.
As was his lifelong devotion to Peary, who fell in and out of favour for different reasons at different times (and Bartlett steadfastly supported Peary’s claim that he had reached the Pole).
Bartlett commanded his first ship, a sealer, when he was 17. When he became captain of the Karluk he was 39. That misadventure has been much chronicled, but Hanrahan spares no disturbing descriptive in a meticulous accounting:
“Bartlett arranged for the survivors’ transfer to the Bear. When the ship reached Nome, he kept them on board, arguing that, in their fragile condition, they would be susceptible to contagious diseases.
They might, he later wrote, ‘fall victim to some ailment of the civilization to which they had so longed to return.’ Perhaps this was a risk, although two days in isolation would hardly have made a difference.
It is more likely that Bartlett wanted to gather as much information as he could before the world’s press descended on the survivors, as he knew they would … Having lived through the controversy following Peary’s claim of the Pole, he knew that most tragedies attract scapegoats …“
Many of Bartlett’s adventures were tragic and gruesome.
Hanrahan doesn’t gloss over this, nor flinch from Bartlett’s own reputation in Brigus, which was not universally heroic.
Hanrahan goes deep into family rifts and quarrels. The legacy of Hawthorn Cottage, for example, already rather tangled with different percentages of ownership given to different family members, comes to Bartlett if he does not marry into the family of Butlers.
Hanrahan spends time and text trying to fathom and enlighten this odd blunt proviso, without drawing a definite conclusion — there are suggestions, but no clinchers, in the evidence.
For all its foot-noted density, here’s a kind of askant-ness to
For all its foot-noted density, here’s a kind of askant-ness to Hanrahan’s writing, perhaps because there’s a slipperiness to her subject.
Hanrahan’s writing, perhaps because there’s a slipperiness to her subject. She builds from the research, which can answer some questions while deepening the mystery of others.
Did Bartlett ever have any children? What was his sexuality? “At least some in Brigus viewed his practice of writing to his mother every day with suspicion.
One elderly citizen who remembered Bartlett referred to the letter-writing: ‘What was all that about? That’d tell you something.’ ” For all his public, what we would now call persona, Bartlett was private. Despite his inscribed global legend he is unfixed as Arctic ice.
The book includes a good few black and white photographs, maps, family trees (as well as a full listing of people mentioned in the book), endnotes, a bibliography, and an index.